Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Your guide to the the can't-miss non-conference games

Getting antsy to see some real games? We are, too. Unfortunately, the regular season doesn't start until Nov. 9. But to tide us over in the meantime, we've combed through the schedules and identified the 10 non-conference games we're most eager to see. Click on the link on your team's name to see its complete schedule. Oh, and don't hold us to our predictions.

10. West Virginia at Virginia, Dec. 2 - The new Big 12 member Mountaineers were one of the most bruising teams we saw last year. Add that to the fact that the Cavaliers also did it with defense last season and we may be looking at a 44-42 game. But there's no such thing as an ugly win, right? Given the rash of injuries that have already struck the Cavs, it's a fair question if Virginia will be ready for such a stern test a mere three weeks in. Then again, a year ago odds weren't high on Virginia in an early season home matchup against an even more ballyhooed foe. Final score: Virginia 69, Tennessee 64 (OT). Besides, the Mountaineers have their own injury concerns - last week, first team All-Big East center Asya Bussie went down for the season with a knee injury.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: Led by Ataira Franklin, the Cavaliers grind out a W in an intensely physical affair, then skip the postgame interviews and head directly to the cold tub.

9. Hampton at Paradise Jam, Nov. 22-24. They have games against NCAA qualifiers South Carolina, DePaul and Florida Gulf Coast lined up over a three-day span, so consider this the Lady Pirates' emphatic answer to getting shafted with a No. 16 seed by the NCAA tournament committee last year. See, the committee doesn't care how many MEAC victories you rack up. Fair or not, seeding for teams in conferences like this are based almost exclusively by the quality of your non-conference schedule (This is also essentially why Middle Tennessee State got a bid over JMU even though the Dukes beat the Blue Raiders head-to-head). Now, just playing these teams is only half the battle; to really make it pay off you need to score a win or two.  Also, this potential three-game parlay would have been even more timely in either of the previous two years, when Hampton had more veteran teams. This year, head coach David Six has a lot of new parts to sort through. But, hey, you have to take these opportunities when you can get them. And this year, Hampton has lined up three big ones.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: After tough encounters with South Carolina and DePaul, all that preseason conditioning pays off as the fitter Lady Pirates upend FGCU in Game No. 3 (The Lady Pirates are doing a lot of preseason conditioning, right, Coach Six?).

8. Longwood at Radford, Dec. 29: We're cheating a bit here - OK, we're cheating big-time - because this is actually a Big South conference game. But it's Longwood's first-ever Big South conference game, and we can't emphasize enough how big of a deal conference affiliation is to the formerly vagabond Lancers. Just don't expect the Highlanders to offer a warm welcome. In fact, they figure to be pretty ticked off - last season, the Lancers spanked Radford 73-59 in Farmville.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: Tie game, five seconds left, Da'Naria Erwin Spencer pulls up and fires, and it's....

7. VCU at Ohio State, Dec. 27 - Hmmm...Rams head coach Marlene Stollings played at Ohio State - as did assistant Niki Dawkins; in fact she coached Stollings in Columbus - and is an Ohio high school basketball legend. And this game is being played two days after Christmas...could she have scheduled this in part as a way to get home for the holidays? Seriously, no question this will be an ultra-tough challenge for this year's retooling Rams. Then again, these Buckeyes are undergoing a bit of a makeover themselves. Besides, if there's a return date on this contract and a marquee team like the Buckeyes will visit the Siegel Center after Stollings and staff have fortified the roster, it's all worth it.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: The coaches will enjoy roaming their old stomping grounds. What? A prediction about the game? Oh. Well.... How 'bout Robyn Hobson notches a Courtney Hurt-style double-double as the Rams keep this one closer than expected.

6. Florida Gulf Coast at Virginia Tech, Dec. 16 - We love different styles, and these Eagles went 29-3 last season in large part because they typically start burying 3-pointers as soon as they get off the team bus. FGCU set NCAA single-season records for threes made and per game and appear hell-bent on eclipsing their own standard in 2012-13. The Eagles spanked the Hokies by 28 points last season, but with five talented Tech newcomers in the fold, last year's film will probably do FGCU little good. Three days after taking on the Hokies (Dec. 19), the Eagles will travel to Richmond for a rematch with a Spiders team they whipped 81-67 a year ago.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: The exquisitely-named Monet Tellier goes off as the new-look Hokies avenge last season's debacle in Florida.

5. Miami at Richmond, Nov. 12 - The Spiders have an excellent opportunity to generate some early-season buzz in this matchup with a Hurricanes bunch that, while still talented, must adjust to life without high-scoring  guards Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson. Additionally, the 'Canes have in recent years been unbeatable at home (40 straight wins heading into this season) but merely mortal (18-11 in road/neutral court games the past two seasons) in someone else's building. Here's hoping the notoriously finicky Spiders fans show up for this one - they may bear witness to something pretty special.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: Rachael Bilney pours in seven 3-pointers to lead the Spiders past the Hurricanes in an entertaining, high-scoring affair.

4. Liberty at Baylor, Nov. 23 - It's the day after Thanksgiving, so if nothing else the Lady Flames will be well-nourished for their date with Brittney Griner and Co. Add in the fact that the Bears will be a few days back from a trip to Hawaii, plus the distraction of Thanksgiving, and maybe, just maybe, Liberty can hang around for a while. But let's not forget that when these teams met two years ago, Griner (35 points) came close to outscoring Liberty all by herself in an 81-42 victory. Still, what athlete with any competitive fire in their belly doesn't want to size themselves up against the very best?
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: The small handful of Liberty fans in attendance taunt the Baylor fans by chanting "What do we eat? What do we eat? Bear meat! Bear meat! How do we like it? How do we like it? Raw! Raw! Raw!" Once play begins, the chant dies quickly.

3. JMU vs. Green Bay in Cancun Challenge, Nov. 22 - No one's going to write about it - except us, of course - but this meeting of so-called mid-major powers looms as one of the most intriguing non-conference games on the entire women's basketball calendar. Few teams play as hard or execute as cleanly as the Phoenix, and the Dukes return most of the cast that whipped five quality foes en route to the WNIT final. This will be both teams' first game in the three-games-in-three-days event, so each should be well-prepared for what the other brings. Can't wait for it all to go down.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: Like last year, Tarik Hislop, Nikki Newman and Co. somehow find a way. But it won't be easy. Green Bay plays something called the "buzz defense," and we suspect the Dukes are about to learn how it got that name.

2. LSU at Hampton, Nov. 16 - The HU campus is loaded with stylishly dressed women, so LSU head coach and new momma Nikki Caldwell should feel right at home. But hopefully not too much at home, right? Seriously, major props to Hampton for landing another home game with a team from the mighty SEC. The last time a team from that league (Florida in 2010), the Lady Pirates racked up a double-digit victory.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: In a game featuring two teams in transition, Hampton's Alyssa Bennett announces herself as one of the state's best players as the Lady Pirates survive for a signature win. Meanwhile, Caldwell leaves the building kicking herself for scheduling this game in the first place.

1. JMU at Virginia, Nov. 9 - From our standpoint, this is the perfect way to kick off the 2012-13 season. A special tip of the cap to Virginia coach Joanne Boyle. She didn't have to schedule JMU, and frankly, a lot of coaches in her position wouldn't. Thanks, Coach, for giving us the game we all want to see.
   Shot-in-the-dark prediction: We'll hold off on a pick for now. But we will say this: given what's happened in this series in recent years, including most recently in last season's WNIT, Virginia really, really, really wants this one.

Best of the rest

Old Dominion at VCU, Nov. 17 - An ex-CAA member vs. a soon-to-be ex-CAA member. In a lot of respects, VCU is going through what ODU went through last year (new coach with an exciting uptempo style inheriting a stripped-down roster).

Norfolk State at Cavalier Classic, Dec. 28-29 - An opening-round date with host Virginia provides the Spartans by far their toughest non-conference competition.

Radford at North Carolina, Dec. 5 - The Highlanders have five players from North Carolina, including star Da'Naria Erwin Spencer. You just know they'll want to be at their very best for this visit to the Tar Heels.

George Mason at George Washington, Dec. 22 - Another edition of the Battle of the Orange Line. Loser loses rights to use the word "George" in its name for the rest of the season (kidding).

William and Mary at Pittsburgh, Nov. 9 - A homecoming of sorts for the western Pennsylvania wing of Tribe basketball - preseason All-CAA forward Emily Correal and sophomore point guard Anna Kestler.

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